The real Thanksgiving story

November 26, 2014

What we're taught about the Thanksgiving holiday bares no resemblance to the reality, explain Caro Gonzales (Chemehuevi) and Brian Ward.

EVERY YEAR, Americans sit down at the dinner table to celebrate feasts of friendship and cooperation. We make crafts in school, we eat pumpkin pie, we watch football, and we feel incredible love for our country. However, there's a side of Thanksgiving that we aren't taught.

Thanksgiving is a U.S. holiday that continues to perpetuate the myth of the discovery of America. Usually, folks think of the Pilgrims, also known as Puritans, and Indians sitting together at a table, peacefully sharing a meal, but this pleasant story is a half-truth at best.

Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1863, but it really began to be a firm, albeit not national, holiday during the presidency of George Washington--a president elected for his leadership as a general during the American Revolution. During the revolution, many Natives sided with the British out of fear of that a new central government on the continent would seek to expand.

Washington, like many early American military leaders, gained experience fighting Native Nations. Washington was also a land speculator and, upon independence, immediately started planning Westward expansion and land theft.

The "first Thanksgiving" as it has gone down in American myth
The "first Thanksgiving" as it has gone down in American myth (Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)

THE THANKSGIVING holiday is intended to celebrate the thanks Pilgrims supposedly expressed for surviving their first year of settlement after fleeing England from religious persecution. One of the typical stories you hear is about Squanto, part of the Wampanoag Nation, who was one of the Natives to teach the Pilgrims good methods for farming in the New World.

The story that isn't often told about Squanto is that he knew English because he was captured, enslaved and taken to England by Captain George Weymouth. He was later forced to be a guide and interpreter for Captain John Smith on his trip to New England.

Though many Pilgrims were indeed escaping religious persecution in England, the reality was that the Plymouth colony was a profit-generating machine and an imperial outpost for the British Empire. Spain, France and Holland had already come to the Americas to expand their influence, and Britain was seeking to compete for the new resources in the Americas. This was, of course, by any means necessary, including at the expense of a whole people.

Roy Cook describes the true purpose of the new settlers' venture:

They came here as part of a commercial venture. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod--before they even made it to Plymouth--was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry.

The settlers performed terrible violence against the Natives. In 1636, after a man was found dead on a boat in Plymouth, the Pequot tribe was immediately blamed. The English Major John Mason gathered his soldiers and proceeded to kill over 400 Pequot Indians to "punish" them for the murder. Appalled at such savagery, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Newell, proclaimed: "From that day forth, shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots."

Of course, this didn't happen without resistance. The best-known resistance was led by Wampanoag leader Metacomet, known as King Philip to the English settlers. Between the years of 1675 to 1678, Metacomet led a war against the settlers after the colonists continued to intrude onto their land and sovereignty, breaking agreements that had been made.

Cook described how this war came to a head:

Massasoit, who had done so much to help the Pilgrims, had a son named Metacomet. As time went on and more Europeans arrived and took more land, Metacomet, or Prince Phillip as he came to be known, and other tribal people began to take notice of self-serving ethics of the Pilgrims. After Metacomet's father, Massasoit, died in 1662, Metacomet was crowned King Phillip of the Pokanoket by the Europeans. King Phillip formed an alliance to remove the European settlers from their homeland. In 1675, after a series of arrogant actions by the colonists, King Phillip led his Indian confederacy into a war meant to save the tribes from extinction.

Like many wars between Natives and non-Natives, the Wampanoag were outnumbered and eventually lost.

WHEN THANKSGIVING became a federal holiday in 1863, it was intended to bring people together during the Civil War with the myth that the continent was made for those of European descent.

The holiday made sense for President Abraham Lincoln's political base of Free Soilers, based among farmers in the West seeking land, often at the expense of Natives Nations. In his proclamation of Thanksgiving, Lincoln declared:

Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

But less than a year before Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday and celebrated the cause of freedom, he also oversaw the largest mass execution in U.S. history, when 38 Dakota warriors were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, after their uprising.

After the Civil War ended, the nation looked west for rich resources and cheap land. Post-Civil War American Indian Nations faced the same challenges that the Wampanoag and other Natives in New England faced. The U.S. Army was stronger and more centralized than ever, and would protect settlers and land speculators moving westward. Making and breaking treaties was the practice of the day.

This was the beginning of the last phase of what was called the Indian Wars, between sovereign Native Nations and the U.S. Within 30 years of Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation, the U.S. had engaged in hundreds of battles, where they won some and lost some. But they ended with the massacre of hundreds of defenseless Lakota people at Wounded Knee Creek, which to many represents the end of the Indian Wars.

FOR GOOD reason, many Native Americans don't celebrate Thanksgiving, but set it aside as a day to reclaim the harvest and reflect.

In 1970, the Massachusetts Department of Commerce asked the Wampanoag for a speaker to be part of the 350th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving. Wamsutta Frank James had put together a speech, but it had to be approved by those in charge of the celebration. Parts of his speech were censored. Here is what he wrote that was so "problematic":

Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.

As a result, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) started the National Day of Mourning, where Native Americans protest Thanksgiving and remember the genocide against Native people.

On the West Coast, many Natives celebrate Unthanksgiving Day and participate in the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony held on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay every year on the day of Thanksgiving. This started after the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, demanding Native rights, and it seeks to remember those who lost their lives through genocide and the colonization of North America and celebrate future generations.

These days, when Natives reflect on the dark past of this country, they also look to the amazing resistance of today's struggles. Native Americans have been the backbone of the climate justice movement, especially around the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is set to go through Native land.

When Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced that the Senate didn't have the votes to approve the pipeline on November 18, Greg Grey Cloud of the Crow Creek Lakota tribe in South Dakota sang with his ancestors a song of victory, leading to his arrest.

Throughout the country, Natives have been fighting against the use of racist imagery in sports, the national focal point being the Washington football team's name. We still see American Indian political prisoner Leonard Peltier in prison, though Obama will pardon yet another turkey this year for Thanksgiving. And throughout Turtle Island (North America), there are thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women. Indigenous women are telling their stories on social media, with the #AmINext hashtag, bringing to light the prevalence of violence against them.

The struggle for Native rights is far from being relegated to the history books, but is alive and well today.

However, the history of Native Americans that we are taught in school normalizes Natives as long gone and something only from the past. Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who wrote most of the curriculum that surrounds this holiday, believed that the best way to socialize children into complying with the values and arrangement of the society was through having a unified ideology--and the best way to sell the idea of expanding the country was through getting everyone to celebrate the myth of the first settlers.

The story of Thanksgiving promotes the acceptance of genocide and land theft. This holiday tries to paint the idea that these acts were done for the common good, not seeing them for what they were--crimes committed to increase the wealth of the ruling class. This process shifts the blame from the current system, which still benefits from the wealth amassed by this destruction. By forgetting Natives, we're forgetting our humanity.

American Indian activist John Trudell, in a spoken-word piece featured in the documentary Reel Injun, said:

When they got off the boat, they didn't recognize us. They said who are you? We said we're the people, we're the human beings. They said Indians, because they didn't recognize what it meant to be a human being. I am a human being, this is the name of my tribe, this is the name of my people, but I'm a human being. But then the predatory mentality shows up, and starts calling us Indians and committing genocide against us--as a vehicle of erasing the memory of being a human being.

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